If you're car racing gamer and fancy yourself a bit behind the wheel of a console or PC, you'll be thrilled to hear of the rise and rise of Lucas Ordoñez, the world’s first virtual to real life racing driver. Lucas won the Nissan/PlayStation GT Academy 2008, a competition designed with the express purpose of taking a champion Gran Turismo gamer and turning them into a real life racing driver. Lucas had his first hit-out in the first round of the highly competitive European GT4 series at the weekend and ended on the podium, filling Gran Turismo's 50 million devotees with hope that a new route to international motorsport is about to open.
Run over nine months, the GT Academy is an international driving competition that captures the spirit and ethos of both Nissan and PlayStation brands and unites the worlds of videogames and motorsport through ultra-realistic competition. While no-one has ever doubted the skills required to turn fast lap times on a PlayStation are similar to those of the racing driver, the feedback delivered by a PlayStation during racing is largely visual, and lacks the noise, heat and seat of the pants haptics of reality, not to mention the physical dangers of driving a real car on the edge at up to 150 mph. Lucas' successful debut in the Dubai 24hr endurance race in January 2009 and his sensational first-up effort in a world-class series indicates that gaming skills are directly transferable. The GT Academy was contested by 25,000 entrants across 12 European countries who competed on the PlayStation network to record their fastest online lap in Gran Turismo 5 PrologueT on PS3. The 20 fastest from each country competed in a national final with the fastest drivers making the international final – the GT Academy at Silverstone. 22 competitors battled it out in a series of physical, mental and driving challenges. These included getting behind the wheel of both open wheelers and Nissan's GT-R during the demanding final few days where the 22 were slowly culled to produce a final eight drivers: Lucas Ordoňez, Spain; Lars Schlömer, Germany; Chris Midmark, Sweden; Fabrice Bernard, France; Arnaud Lacombe, France; Luca Lorenzini, Italy; Giacomo Cunial, Italy & Matthew Gordon, UK. You can find a detailed rundown of the last day of competition here.
Winning the event gave Lucas the racing contract that culminated in him racing a Nissan 350z in the Dubai 24hr endurance race in January, and performing remarkably well. Partnered by experienced racers Johnny Herbert, Alex Buncombe, and Rob Barff, Lucas' Nissan team suffered a mechanical setback, yet still finished ninth in class with 451 laps and 2431km in 24 hours.
Being partnered in a 24 hour race is a very different experience than the European GT4 series though, and the first round at Silverstone last weekend has proven to be another positive step for the young gamer turned racer. He yet again held his own amidst seasoned competitors as he partnered experienced driver Alex Buncombe recording two strong results.
Race one saw a storming drive by Lucas and Alex from 11th on the grid to 6th position but it was race two that delivered a memorable result for the drivers. Buncombe displayed a textbook start from 4th on the grid and was leading by the end of the first lap. The advantage was lost due to the intervention of a safety car and a cautious pit stop and it was left to Ordoñez to rejoin the track and battle it out for 2nd, 3rd and 4th places. A titanic scrap raged throughout the rest of the race but Ordoñez seized his chance and in the last few corners made his move to take an unexpected but well deserved podium.
Lucas said: “I was really pushing hard on the last corners, trying to overtake the BMW. I could tell that he was losing grip on his rear tyres and I managed to overtake him on the last corner. I'm really happy that we came third in my first race weekend in GT4, it's great for me. We'll try to continue to improve in Italy in two weeks time. Alex showed that the Nissan can lead races and I need to help convert those chances.”
Team boss of Nissan Playstation, Bob Neville added: “Last year the Nissan Z and Alex Buncombe won more races in European GT4 than anyone else, but the podium today feels like more of an achievement. We have seen Lucas grow in such a short space to deliver this exciting drive today.”
Mark Bowles, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe added: “The creator of the Gran Turismo series of games, Kazunori Yamauchi was at Silverstone to witness this important chapter in our commitment to take a Gran Turismo gamer and turn him into a real life racing driver – he and I can’t wait for the next instalment.”
Darren Cox, Nissan Europe said: “I set Lucas, Alex and the team a objective of a top six result, they have overachieved against strong opposition from Aston Martin and BMW. Lucas must not let this result go to his head and focus on consistent results over the next five race weekends across Europe.”
Ordoñez is the first winner of GT Academy and his success so far augers well for yet another route to the top levels of motorsport. It also represents a talent pool of formidable proportions - over 50 million copies of Gran Turismo have been sold since Kazunori Yamauchi and Polyphony Digital launched the realistic racing simulator.
Since the launch of PLAYSTATION 3 in November 2006, over 21.3 million units have been sold globally and continue to be sold at a record level. PlayStation 2 became one of the most successful consumer electronic products in history, and has sold over 136.3 million systems worldwide. Since its launch at the end of 2004, over 50 million PSPs have been sold globally. With the huge increase in interest and accessibility of network applications and network gaming, over 20 million accounts have registered to PlayStation Network, the free-to-access interactive environment.